Obituary: Flora MacDonald CC, politician

Canada's first female foreign minister who played a key role in rescuing US diplomat hostages from Iran. Picture: Getty
Canada's first female foreign minister who played a key role in rescuing US diplomat hostages from Iran. Picture: Getty
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Born: 3 June, 1926, in North Sydney, Nova Scotia, Canada. Died: 26 July, 2015, in Ottawa, aged 89.

ALTHOUGH she was Canadian, Flora MacDonald was proud of her Scottish ancestry and the fact that she was named after the historic Scotswoman who famously helped get the fugitive Bonnie Prince Charlie “over the sea to Skye”. Having become a breakthrough female politician – the first woman in Canada to hold the post of foreign minister – she was once voted “Scot of the Year” in Canada and was made a Companion of the Order of Canada (CC) by the nation’s head of state, Queen Elizabeth 11. A longtime Progressive Conservative MP with the slogan “Flora Power”, she also served as minister of communications and minister of employment and immigration.

Her fellow politicians said that, had she been born 20 years later when more barriers had been broken, she might well have become Canada’s first female prime minister.

As foreign minister, it was MacDonald who gave the order to her ambassador and staff in Tehran, at great risk to themselves, to help six American diplomats who had escaped capture during the November 1979 seizure of the US embassy in the Iranian capital by militant Islamist students.

Working in co-operation with the American CIA and President Jimmy Carter, she organised false Canadian passports to get the six diplomats out of Iran to safety in what became known as “the Canadian Caper.”

She appeared in real archive footage in an Oscar-winning Hollywood movie about the event, Argo (2012), starring Ben Affleck. Her initial idea was that the six Americans, posing as Canadian tourists, should cycle to Turkey but in the end they got on a Swissair flight to Zurich pretending to be a Canadian film crew.

Throughout the process, MacDonald had to keep quiet about the drama, both in the Canadian public and in private, even among members of her family.

As a 24-year-old, during a visit to Scotland in 1950, MacDonald fell in with Scottish Nationalists, including four University of Glasgow students who “liberated” the Stone of Scone (or Stone of Destiny) from Westminster Abbey to Scotland, as portrayed in the 2008 film Stone of Destiny starring Robert Carlyle. Macdonald was said to have known about and supported the 1950 plot, in the days when the SNP was a tiny minority party, although she was not directly involved.

Flora Isabel MacDonald was born in North Sydney, on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, on 3 June, 1926 to George Frederick MacDonald and Mary Isabel Royle.

Her father was in charge of Western Union’s transatlantic telegraph terminus, which linked the New World to the Old, notably the British Isles. “As a child in the 1930s, my father would come home every evening with the first news from Europe and around the world,” she said. “It was a much better education than I ever got at school.”

Her Scottish grandfather had been captain of a clipper ship who sailed the Atlantic and around Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope before he settled, appropriately, in Nova Scotia, as had many Scots refugees from the 18th-century Highland Clearances.

Flora grew up in one of Canada’s poorest areas during the Great Depression, which gave her a lifelong empathy for the hardships of the poor.

As a teenager, she watched Canadian and other vessels set sail from Nova Scotia’s Sydney harbour ,taking vital ammunition and coal to the Second World War Allies. Because of her father’s job, and their Scottish connection, her family closely followed the war, particularly the exploits of the Scottish regiments, and she took on a deep interest in world affairs that would last a lifetime, not least during her term as foreign minister (secretary of state for foreign affairs).

Her father took her to her first meeting of the then Conservative Party when she was 11.

After studying at the Empire Business College on Cape Breton island, she worked as a secretary and later as a teller at the Bank of Nova Scotia, which gave her enough money to hitchhike through war-ravaged Europe in 1950, visiting Edinburgh and Clydeside, where she met the Stone of Destiny robbers before returning to Canada and entering politics.

She started in politics in 1956 as part of the provincial election campaign of the Progressive Conservative candidate Robert Stanfield and went on to work for Prime Minister John Diefenbaker until he fired her and she joined Stanfield’s successful 1967 general election campaign.

Her peers said her astuteness played a key role in Stanfield’s election. As a result, she was nominated for and won a parliamentary seat for Nova Scotia’s Kingston and the Islands riding (district) in 1972, the only Tory woman in parliament.

She would hold the seat until 1988, including during the two governments of the flamboyant liberal Pierre Trudeau.

But MacDonald first invaded the Canadian consciousness in February 1976 when she ran for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party, seeking to be its first woman leader. As it turned out, she failed – it was too early for the old boys to accept that a female could lead them.

The many Canadians of Scottish origin recall the moment her name was announced as a candidate at the party conference. “The room fell silent,” one recalled, “and a lone bagpiper began playing the Skye Boat Song.”

Forty-eight more pipers gradually joined in and MacDonald walked regally to the stage, saying: “I am a candidate not because I am a woman. But quite frankly, because I am a woman, my candidacy helps our party.”

She had a decent chance of winning but many party members who had walked into the meeting wearing “Flora Power” rosettes revealed their prejudices in the ballot and voted against her. That gave birth in Canadian politics to the term “the Flora Syndrome”, when men say they will support a female candidate but mysteriously change their minds on their ballots.

It was in 1979 that Prime Minister Joe Clark named her foreign minister. Her first crisis was dealing with the influx to Canada of more than 60,000 Vietnamese “boat people” fleeing the communist takeover after the US withdrawal. Her second was her key role in the Iran hostage crisis.

After retiring from national politics, MacDonald became involved in international development and as a global ambassador for charities including Oxfam, CARE and Doctors Without Borders. She donned a veil and lived in mud-bricked houses in Afghanistan on 12 trips to press for the education of women there.

She also founded her own NGO, Future Generations Canada. In her 80s, she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and back home often roller-skated, at some speed, to her office, where she proudly kept a photograph of the memorial to her famous Scottish namesake Flora Macdonald at Kilmuir on the Isle of Skye.

The Canadian Flora died on Sunday in Ottawa. She was unmarried.